Establishing a community garden and sponsoring a community land trust this spring are among the first results of a partnership between a Burlington neighborhood and the Elon Poverty and Social Justice (PSJ) program.
Residents of the Morrowtown community — a historically underserved area on the edge of downtown Burlington — began organizing in 2018 to improve neighborhoods and curb the rot of crime and poverty. Her work caught the attention of Toddie Peters, professor of religious studies and coordinator of the PSJ program, who began attending regular Morrowtown Community Group meetings to listen and offer possible solutions to identified problems.
A community garden, playground, and gathering place at 642 S. Mebane St., built by residents and students of assistant professors of philosophy Robert Leib and Lauren Guilmette, officially opened April 30 at Burlington Community Land Trust. PSJ program intern Imonni Withers ’22 also worked on the community garden site this spring with a free afterschool program, Mondays in Morrowtown.
A community for change
The Morrowtown Community Group, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, was formed four years ago after Lydia Jones and Joyce Moore each lost family members to gun violence. The couple met with neighbors to pray and discuss solutions to youth activities, declining home values and upkeep, and crime. Jones’ house became known as a safe place for children, for a hearty chat or a warm meal. She calls them “my babies”. Her support for the neighborhood children morphed into a regular Mondays in Morrowtown program.
Longtime residents formed a task force that drew the attention of the city of Burlington, churches, Alamance Citizens for a Drug-Free Community, and Elon faculty. Guilmette and Leib are residents of Morrowtown.
Efforts to secure land for the community garden began a few years ago and bore fruit last fall when parishioners bought a lot on the corner of South Mebane Street – a busy four-lane street – and Clay Street.
“This is something new and different in an area with a lot of poverty, crime, violence and drugs. It’s completely different,” Jones said at the garden launch. “It’s beautiful. I’m just so grateful that there are so many people who have been touched by something I’ve said.
“My babies give me strength. If there’s anything I can do to see a smile on her face, it makes me smile. It makes me feel good to know that there is something I can do to change their lives.”
Support new growth
Leib’s Poverty and Social Justice Capstone students helped plan the garden last fall. Guilmette’s Health and Social Justice class organized Saturday workdays this spring to clear the property and plant the garden.
“Our mission was to envision what that lot might be,” Leib said. “We spent quite a bit of time making plans for the garden and figuring out how participation and membership could work. Some of that work is still ahead of us, but we are very pleased with how it all came together.”
The garden consists of 10 raised beds and a row crop field, an outdoor classroom and meeting room, compost heaps, a fire pit and a small playground with rope swings and ladders. A grant from Elon’s Kernodle Center for Civic Life acquired a storage shed that students and community members built earlier this spring. Local farmers have also donated fences, which will be installed later this spring.
“We started cleaning up in February when everything was overgrown and covered in trash,” Guilmette said. “Essentially, the parishioners and students built these raised beds, hung up the tire swings and the rope ladder. I have great pictures of our students rolling these 35 logs up the hill for outdoor classroom seating.”
The garden should provide nutritional support in the neighborhood that is a food desert and not within walking distance of grocery stores or farmers markets. It will be operated on a take-as-you-need system this year, allowing residents to grow crops and plan crops. The system was still in the planning process when the garden’s first growing season began.
“It was really satisfying building it from the ground up,” said Billie Waller ’22, a philosophy major. “When we started it was a smaller group of people, but over the past few months it’s been cool to see more and more people coming out and getting interested.”
Withers, an environmental studies major and a PSJ minor, conducted soil research and supported Monday’s afterschool program at Morrowtown in the garden this spring as PSJ’s first intern. She planned science projects, crafts, and activities for about 15 children, ages 6 to 16.
The space has become a regular hangout for children, who flock to the tire swings in the afternoons.
Withers grew up in an urban area characterized by pollution, little access to clean air, green space or nature, and poor water quality. Living in Elon improved her physical and mental health due to the better environment, she said. She invested her experience in the program, the garden and the children in Morrowtown. She is in the process of receiving grants for a permanent gardening internship in Morrowtown.
“I developed a really strong connection with the kids,” Withers said. “They had a great influence on me. My internship is supposed to end in May, but I will stay here at least until the end of June. These kids need someone who can be a role model and I want to be that for them.”
Shaping a sustainable future
On the last day of the spring semester, students in Peters’ PSJ final course presented their findings to the leaders of the Morrowtown Community Group Work to support the Burlington Community Land Trust in the neighborhood.
Community land trusts have become increasingly common tools for residents to ensure affordable housing and control land use in neighborhoods. Essentially, they serve to give the trust control of land while individuals own the structures on it. The land is usually leased in inheritable increments of 99 years. Homeowners agree to resale value restrictions through formulas that allow for equity building while keeping the home affordable. When properties are sold the Trust has control over how the land is used in the best interest of the community.
The Land Trust would increase home ownership and reduce property rents in the area.
Students created marketing plans for the Land Trust, applied for grants and started a Go Fund Me for the Trust, researched trends in property ownership and values, interviewed residents, and created oral history videos of Morrowtown residents. These videos are preserved by the Power and Place Collaborative, a partnership between Elon, the African American Center for Culture, Arts and History and the Mayco Bigelow Community Center in Burlington, to chronicle stories about Alamance County’s black communities.
“As someone who is a social ethicist, as someone who works with the Poverty and Social Justice program, I’m really trying to find meaningful ways for students at Elon and professors at Elon and Elon’s resources to engage with people in the community can be useful ways for us to… listen to you and figure out how to use the skills and knowledge to contribute to projects and causes in the community,” said Peters.